How the 2020 Business Shutdowns May Affect 2021 Veterinary Visits

Does it feel like your practice has been markedly busy since the pandemic started? If so, you're right on target: New data pulled from IDEXX's large network of practices confirms it.

As illustrated in the graph below, the number of visits — especially wellness appointments — dropped dramatically in March and April and then increased steadily as businesses reopened in early spring. Looking ahead, how will that drop affect appointments in March and April of 2021?

How the Drop in Wellness Visits Impacted Practices

When businesses began to shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general advice was to push off any service that could safely wait a few months. This impacted wellness visits for veterinary practices, as the graph confirms.

Fortunately for us, the drop in business for veterinary clinics was pretty short-lived. Clinics that were able to reopen returned to regular growth in the early summer. There is, however, an iceberg lurking in the waters: Most clinics recommend an annual wellness exam that includes critical services such as vaccines and heartworm tests. When that was disrupted last year, it set the stage for this year to repeat the same pattern.

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With clinics closed or performing only emergency services, wellness appointments that should have been scheduled in March or April were either pushed back into the summer or canceled and never rebooked. Both of those scenarios present challenges, and the impacts on your practice will depend on when you were able to reopen and to what capacity.

Scenario 1: Patients Missed Their Visit Altogether

Increased well visits throughout the remainder of the year suggest that many pet did ultimate receive care. That said, even in the best of times some of our patients don't visit in a given year. This creates two potential problems: Patients missed out on the preventive care services they need to stay healthy, and with no completed appointment last year, your reminder system may not have been triggered, and they won't be automatically invited to come in this year.

In order to ensure that you provide the best medicine to your patients, and to bring in revenue missed last spring, you need to reconnect with these clients.

Scenario 2: Patients Were All Scheduled for the Same Time Period

The patients who did get rebooked bring their own challenges. Many of these appointments were likely booked for the early summer once the practice reopened. As we tried to catch up with the backlog, our teams were stretched to the limit. Client service and patient care undoubtedly suffered as the extra work was mixed with new safety measures.

In this case, annual reminders were set, but they perpetuate the timing problem. Now, you may see an influx of wellness appointments that were scheduled at the same time in the early summer.

Strategies for Preparing Your Practice

If not addressed, both of these scenarios can present problems for your practice. Beyond pets not receiving care when they should have, allowing a quiet spring and summer crunch is incredibly inefficient. Clients will have reduced scheduling options and appointment slots that you need to account for when sick and emergency cases arise. The summer months will see greater pressure on workflow, which adds stress to your team.

To protect your teams and provide the best service to clients and patients, it's time to take back ownership of your schedule and patient care. Proactive management of wellness visits can get you back on track and set the pattern for future years. Try to move appointments where possible so you have a more even cadence, and reconnect with those clients you've missed.

As a practice manager, it can be a challenge to find time to stay on top of everything — and this may feel like another administrative task you don't have time for. But failing to address it could impact revenue, patient care and your team's morale. It'll require some planning and strong client communication, but it will be worth it to regain control of your schedule.

Be sure to read on to get tips on re-engaging clients with these communication tips.

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Des Whittall
Practice Manager

Des Whittall is an owner and manager of two veterinary clinics and pet resorts in Texas. A software engineer by training, he worked with an investment bank for 13 years in roles ranging from technical support to business divestment, managing large international teams and complex vendor relationships. With his partner, he has grown the clinics and resorts and is focused on developing businesses that can provide high-quality medicine and development opportunities for their teams.

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